Back to school: Learning a language as an adult

Illustration by Anna Chrichton

Learning a language as an adult can soon lead to behaving like a child.

“Talofa.” My husband and I are attempting a very basic Samoan conversation, slowly sounding out the words, practising our introductions. “‘O lo’u igoa o…” My-name-is…“Moe k’io!” interrupts his mum, and we all crack up laughing, our earnest attempt to politely greet each other thwarted instead for, “Hello, my name is… bed-shitter!”

But, though she’s clearly amused at our childlike and stilted efforts at talking in Samoan, it also makes her happy, this trying. As it does my dad, when I ask him, “‘O ai lou suafa?” It’s a silly question to ask your dad, really. “What is your name?” But he smiles, and answers, as does my mum, who sometimes surprises herself with the Samoan she’s picked up over the years.

With my husband and sister, I am four weeks into a 10-week basic Samoan course. They can understand some, but not speak it. They have a foundation that allows them to decipher a conversation in Samoan, to figure out the general gist. It’s different for me; I’ve had nothing to go off, no words to anchor to, the language always kind of washing over me, or floating above me, out of reach, just gibberish.

The classes are like being back at primary school, except I’m learning a lot slower now. And at times, my sister and I have the maturity of five-year-olds. We giggle when we get things wrong, and cried laughing at the back of the classroom as the teacher repeated the Samoan word for cat, “pusi, puuuusi, puuuuusiiii.” But most of the time I’m furiously scribbling notes, trying to keep up.

We all want to feel better connected to our culture, our families, and we especially want to know what people are saying about us when they diss us in Samoan. It’s fun. I enjoy coming to terms with macrons, and glottal stops, or fa’amamafa and komaliliu, and getting my head around how sentences are structured. I suppose in the same way I’d always done well in English in school.

We sing the Samoan national anthem in one of our first classes, and I’m excited thinking about how I’ll be able to sing all the words the next time Manu Samoa play.

But it gets hard quick. The class when we learned to count and tell the time had my head hurting within minutes. I’ve always been crap with numbers, so I guess I will continue this tradition in Samoan.

I’m hoping by the time you read this, I’ll be able to confidently introduce myself in Samoan and tell you my age, what village I’m from and who my parents are. I might even be able to tell you the time. Words have already started to become less like gibberish. I may not understand them immediately, but I’m starting to recognise them. I’m hoping soon they will start to take on meaning, and one day I’ll be able to ask my dad something a little less basic than, “What is your name?

This article was first published in the January-February 2017 issue of Metro. Follow Metro on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the weekly e-mail